Oscar Wilde’s epigrammatic drawing room ‘dramedy’ (‘dramedy’ of manners?) made for an unlikely early Hollywood masterpiece from Ernst Lubitsch. And he managed to do it without resorting to a dull series of ‘witty’ title cards. Instead, locating psychological insight, finessing licit & illicit affairs, painting the rigid British class system and larding his tale with ‘Lubitsch Touches,’ his unique visual aperçu, a combination of framing & staging strategies that called on space, character placement & shifting scale to covertly develop gags & drama out of opposing social forces. And, Lubitsch being Lubitsch, that would include furniture, doorbell buzzers & a mislaid fan. The story follows two main scandals: in one, an insecure young wife flirts with a dashing, if caddish, gentleman (Mary McAlvoy; Ronald Colman), unaware that her husband is being gently blackmailed by an adventuress hoping to regain a foothold on respectability and even marry rich old Lord Lorton (Bert Lytell; Irene Rich; Edward Martindel). Her leverage is that she’s the long lost, secret mother of Lady Windermere. But once Lord Windermere’s assistance starts looking like a love affair, only sacrificial mother-love can come to the rescue of reckless behavior. There are any number of lousy Public Domain editions to avoid, but the transfer on MORE TREASURES From American Film Archives - Program 3 is quite good, and comes with a bunch of spiffy extras, including a heartbreaking look at a few Movie Trailers for lost silent features. There’s one for a 1926 GREAT GATSBY with Warner Baxter; a spectacular looking BEAU SABREUR/’28 with a spectacular looking Gary Cooper; THE AMERICAN VENUS/’26 with Louise Brooks; and, from Lubitsch, THE PATRIOT//’28, a huge production that was his final collaboration with Emil Jannings. Only these tantalizing glimpses remain.
DOUBLE-BILL: Two sound versions (not seen here), THE FAN/’49 and A GOOD WOMAN/’04, have poor reps, but keep an eye out for Alexander Korda’s strikingly fine adaptation of Wilde’s greatest play, AN IDEAL HUSBAND/’47. It’s Korda’s best work as director, with an unmatchable cast in roles not unlike the dramatis personæ of WINDERMERE. With a fine DVD available in the U.K., it can’t be long before it shows up Stateside. Till then, skip the archly handled 1999 film which pointlessly ‘opens up’ Wilde’s perfectly crafted play and has Minnie Driver (Minnie Driver!) speaking his dialogue.